Thomas Frank, “The People, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism” (2020) – Thomas Frank deserves more credit than he gets in left-leaning circles. Much of his reputation comes from his 2004 breakout book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” This is a problem for two reasons. One is that while it’s a fun, fast book, it’s not Frank at his best. The other is that a lot of people, many of whom should know better, seemingly failed to read beyond the title. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” isn’t a screed at the expense of the people of the Sunflower State (Frank himself is a Kansan), as has been widely alleged and assumed. The book is largely an attack on the contemporary Democratic Party for abandoning the people of Kansas to the cruel whims of global market forces. Criticism of those same forces, the politicians who abet them, and the culture the whole gestalt produces, has been Frank’s project for decades. His magazine, The Baffler, formed an oasis of biting criticism during the gauzy, end-of-history 1990s. He deserves, at the very least, a fairer hearing than he’s gotten, which is one based largely on one line from his copious works.
Alas, Frank’s latest work, “The People, NO,” is not the book to fix this problem. The premise sounds promising: a scathing critique of the anti-populism that has reared its head prominently since Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. There is some of that, and a range of elitist figures from Mark Hanna to Jason Brennan get what’s coming to them in Frank’s fine prose. What is also present, predominant for much of the book, is an extended effort to rescue the reputation of the People’s Party, the original Populists in the American context, from an obloquy whose origins and persistence Frank makes sound close to conspiracy. More than conspiratorial, Frank’s defense of the original Populists and their contemporary relevance goes beyond impassioned and becomes, frankly, injured and myopic.
Like Frank, the American Populists deserve more credit than they get in many circles. Indeed, they have gotten it, from major historians who Frank cites, such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Charles Postel. These historians depict the People’s Party, an American third-party effort that lived and died in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as a noble effort to bring meaningful democracy to America’s political system. They were forward-looking reformers, promulgators of ideas such as regulation of railroads, the income tax, popular referenda, the direct election of Senators, and more. Populists made an effort to break single-party white supremacist rule in the post-Reconstruction South by making alliances between white and black farmers and workers, which were only defeated by force. Their ideas inspired future generations of American reformers, including the Progressives, the New Dealers, and portions of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. This is what Frank refers to as “our native radical tradition.”
The opponents of this native radicalism are predictably elitist and slimy. The original Populists were done in by the presidential campaign of William McKinley, who pulled out all of the stops to present the Populists as insane, foreign, dirty, motivated by madness and rapine. The New Dealers faced the Liberty League and others who decried the Roosevelt administration as a totalitarian disaster of the first order. The tone-deafness and often open racism of these attacks clang through the book.
Later attacks were more subtle, sufficiently subtle that the thread begins to get lost. Frank, along with his historiographical inspirations Goodwyn and Postel, fought (and continue to fight) against the long shadow made by Richard Hofstadter and his cohort. Hofstadter, godfather of the liberal consensus school of American history, depicted the American Populists as angry hayseeds frightened of modernity. He made bogus charges, such as laying American anti-semitism at the feet of the People’s Party, as though the elite of nineteenth century America needed any instructions in bigotry from farmers and workers. Social scientists aligned with the consensus school such as Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset conflated populism and McCarthyism, declaring that the goal of politics was to maintain democracy while containing or eliminating such dangerous mass movements as populism, which stirred people to intolerance and illiberalism.
This is where the problem of definitions begins to become glaring, not coincidentally where it starts entering into contemporary debates on populism. Conflating the Populists and the New Deal is enough to raise historiographical hackles, but in a book for a broad audience can be granted a pass- the Populism was, after all, a prominent strand in the New Deal’s DNA. But, always and everywhere, Frank argues, we should see the word “populist” as referring to the People’s Party and those whom Frank designates as its successors, such as the New Dealers. Other uses are illegitimate, he posits, either the product of elite anti-populism (academia especially plays a devilish role here by introducing other definitions of the term) or by those looking to hijack populism for right-wing ends. This wasn’t Frank’s position when he wrote about “market populism,” enthusiasm for the market as a supposed expression of the popular will, in his best work, “One Market Under God.” But it is his position now.
The major problem with this is that the term “populism” was never, even in the nineteenth century, confined to the People’s Party or its heirs designate. There were other populist movements going on at the same time in other parts of the world, most notably the Narodniki of Russia and the Volkisch movement of Germany. There were many differences between these movements and the People’s Party, and some similarities. But however one splits the populist definitional pie, scholars engaged in an international conversation on populism cannot restrict themselves to a definition made up solely by the example of one American party that existed for less than a decade. Say what one will about structural functionalist social scientists like Shils and Lipset, but they were part of an international conversation. Indeed, their anti-populism was heavily influenced by figures such as German sociologist Max Weber and the Italian Elitist school of political science. The idea that American social science decided to define populism the way it did — even if it’s wrong and wrong-headed — as a backlash against the People’s Party is a claim that does not pass muster. This is especially obvious when you consider their real target: the anticapitalist left of socialists and communists.
This definitional problem looms over the rest of the book and jeopardizes Frank’s ability to analyze the right, the center, and the left. We can’t criticize right-wing populism as populism because doing so dishonors the good name of “Sockless Jerry” Simpson and the decent plain folk of the People’s Party. Anyone so doing, no matter what their pretenses or intellectual lineage, are anti-populists, elitists, scolds, enemies of the people, in the bitter world of “The People, NO.” That such scholars might be engaging in a larger project than either upholding or sabotaging the legacy of the People’s Party — the only two options we seem to get — doesn’t enter into Frank’s considerations at all.
The damnable thing is that Frank isn’t entirely wrong. Why not use words such as “fascist” or “authoritarian” or “nationalist” instead of muddying the name of “populist” as in “right-wing populist?” Liberal anti-populists like Cas Mudde, even when they get into it with antifascist intentions, often get things glaringly wrong about the populist tradition. Alas, this all gets into thorny definitional issues of all of these terms and the unfortunate overuse of “fascism” in certain decades. But the idea that figures analyzing Latin American or European populisms use the term because they want to abuse a late-nineteenth century US political formation is deeply provincial and verges into conspiracy theory.
In Frank’s insistence on his definition of populism, non-populist leftists disappear, or worse, become revealed as elitist, antipopulist liberals. The People’s Party was a party that had workers in it but, like the Democrats, were not a worker’s party; its social base was small property owners, farmers, shopkeepers, etc. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t contribute to the left. But it does mean insisting that they are the left leaves a critical part of the story out.
Frank never addresses why the Democrats — who swallowed and disposed of the original People’s Party without so much as a backwards glance — all of a sudden came over so common-people-friendly in the 1930s. It was because of agitation to their left- much of it well to the left of the People’s Party. This is what pushed Franklin Roosevelt into adopting the reforms he did.
In “The People, NO,” Frank places his emphasis on Roosevelt’s populist rhetoric. This is a classical critical lapse and an odd one for a sharp writer like Frank. Paying attention to what Roosevelt actually did, as opposed to his soaring rhetoric, shows that he put in place many of his most important measures after massive pressure from his left. This was (and to the extent it exists, is) an anticapitalist left with its own lineage, of which the People’s Party is a small or negligible part. This is the same force that has pushed the Democratic party to do every worthwhile thing it has ever done, often dragging it kicking and screaming and leaving the draggers thinking that there has to be a better way.
Frank doesn’t come out and cast those to the left of populism in with the elitist anti-populists. He does so by implication, in his penultimate chapter where he reserves the term “the left” for the censorious liberals who dominate the contemporary Democratic party and who make such noise on twitter and on op-ed pages. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, who got nearly as much of their ire as Donald Trump did, doesn’t appear until one reference in the conclusion. Frank sees Sanders as a populist, a glimmer of hope. Let the populists make liberalism great again, is essentially Frank’s battle cry. The idea that we can do better than populism or liberalism is presumably the property of dreamers or scolds.
But the Democratic party and liberalism were never great. They occasionally did great things, but only under massive pressure and despite their instincts. The Democrats haven’t moved right because they had a beef with a long-dead third party. They moved right after the nineteen-seventies in large part because liberalism was and is terrified of the left. Antisocialism, anticommunism, and anti-Marxism animated both liberals and the right wing during the twentieth century. Enemies of the left used all of the tools once used against the People’s Party, and many more. There’s good reason for this. To take an example from the global history of his subject that Frank steadfastly ignores, the Russian populists killed a Czar. Russian communists killed Czardom.
The Democrats really did abandon whatever pretense of working for ordinary people they once had. Their anti-populism is motivated by class interest and, post-2016, a refusal to look reality in the face. That our elite is as worried about populism as it is is a sign of their decay, and that we need to keep pushing for what the Populists wanted and beyond. That Thomas Frank wrote a book about the matter with the flaws “The People, NO” has is a sign that his issue isn’t wondering “what’s the matter with Kansas?” It’s his refusal to follow anticapitalism where it leads. ***